Know When to Stop or Step Aside

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I am guilty of the same error that many writers are guilty of: Because I fear rejection, I quit writing. I’ve done it in the past, I’m doing it now, and I will likely do it in the future. But the fear of rejection should not result in my NOT writing.

As a writer I know once said, “If they don’t like your stuff, write new stuff!” Rather than banging your head against a dead-end , wishing that your readers would respond to what you are writing, turn and try another path. This could lead to a new genre, or just a new idea in your current genre. It will certainly help to open new horizons for you, horizons that might offer pay dirt, or at least potentially a more fertile arena.

I have many starts in my writing files — and far fewer finishes. These arrested starts still call to me, and there is a chance that I will get back to a few of them in the future, though certainly some are fatally inert and best left that way. But I don’t see these unfinished creations as a waste of time, or as failures.

What I have found is that stepping away when I am having trouble writing often frees my blood circulation, literally and figuratively, allowing me to see a way around my writer’s block, or to recognize that the block is too massive to overcome and I’m just wasting my time assaulting it.

The best thing I can do at that moment is to abandon the path I am on and seek out another, where my creativity can thrive and sing on the page.

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HOWEVER, that is not to say that we writers should abandon every project when it gets hard. Certainly not. Part of the fun of writing is pushing through the obstacles, getting over hurdles, finishing what we started because we know it’s worth it. The fun is seeing how you can find creative ways past those obstacles. Typically, your writing is stronger because of those challenges overcome.

But know when it’s time to call a halt. Sometimes, certain paths just shouldn’t be followed. You’ll know when it’s time.

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Editors Are Not Your Friends

It’s a fact: Editors are not your friends. You pay us to be more.

So many times, I’ve received a manuscript to edit where the author has informed me that it has been read several times, “and my family and friends love it,” so it should need very little editing. They send the manuscript to me just to check off the Edit box before launching it for publication.

Inevitably, I have to tell the author that the manuscript needs so much more than a pat and a kiss before being sent into the world. This isn’t mean-spiritedness on my part; it’s what I am paid to do. I am both cheerleader and trail guide.

It is my job to look at all aspects of the book, separate from who wrote it, which is something that friends cannot do. I can tell the author that the characters aren’t fully developed, or that they are a bit stereotypical. Or I can point out flaws in the plot, or gaps in motivation. Again, I’m not being unkind. I am showing the author how to improve the story.

That’s not to say that I won’t be positive and encouraging. I am always happy to cheer, as well, emphasizing what is right and strong in the book. My task is to help an author achieve that power throughout the book.

By all means, let your friends read your drafts, and listen to what they have to say. But before you rush to publish, here are a few reasons why you should send your manuscript to an editor:

  • Editors take the broad view. While family and friends might find it difficult to unlink the author from the story, an editor takes the broader view, allowing the story to stand on its own merits, separate from any feelings about the author. This allows honesty without circumspection.
  • Editors ensure a solid foundation. Editors do more than just read the story; they take it apart to its basic elements and verify that all elements are where they should be, and that nothing is missing. This strengthens the structure of the story. After all, you can build a glorious tower, but if it isn’t on a solid foundation, it will quickly flounder and crumple to the ground. Editors ensure that foundation.
  • Editors question your characters. Too often, authors create characters who do exactly what they are told, exactly what they need to do for their role in the story. But a good editor will question your characters, ask why they are who they are and why they do what they do. This helps to make your characters come alive on the page, rather than existing as cut-outs for the story line.
  • Editors test your story line and plot. It is the editor’s task to test your story line and to challenge your plots, all in the name of strengthening your book. The editor will look for gaps in the story, lack of continuity, and errors in reasoning or motivation for the plot to develop. This is hard for the author to do alone, being close to the story and so very aware of where the story needs to go.
  • Editors give your manuscript the chance to thrive. Editors understand the effort you have made to create your story. We know the love and pain that has gone into the writing. Our only goal is to give your manuscript the chance to succeed in the vastness of the world.

It is a major, and costly, decision to hire an editor once you have finished your book. Absolutely. But it is a necessary step for achieving what you dreamed about when you started your story. Take the step.

Characters Are Key

Who would you be sadder to see die: Daenerys Stormborn or Bran Stark?

For me, it’s Daenerys, all the way. I care about her. I’ve rooted for her since we first encountered her. She has a story I have embraced, and I want her to succeed and become queen.

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As for Bran, his character (in the TV series, anyway) is so underdeveloped (though with great promise) that I simply don’t care about him. We haven’t been given enough to buy into him emotionally, at least I haven’t. His great knowledge has yet to be shared, and since he became the three-eyed raven, he is cold and aloof from everyone. Will he live, or will he die? Meh. (Even as I write this, I am aware that there could be a HUGE surprise awaiting us where Bran is concerned. Still, as of this moment, I say Meh. I might retract it, I know.)

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Brianne of Tarth, on the other hand, has just been sent into harm’s way. Not Brianne! We want her to marry Tormund Giantsbane and have giant warrior children! They’re not main characters, but oh do we care about them!

When you are writing your characters, whether hero or villain, or even secondary characters, try to make your readers care about them. If readers become invested in your characters, you’ll keep them engaged in your story. If not, it won’t matter how wonderful your story or plot is, the reader will be able to put the book down and walk away.

We recently watched “Rectify” on TV. The characters were so engaging, even damaged, that we found ourselves talking about them as though they were real, discussing their reactions and fears, eager to watch the next episode to know how they were getting on. Now that’s good writing!

Even less-dramatic shows, such as “Better Call Saul,” can have us caring when someone does a favorite character evil. Are the stories unique and memorable? Not always. But they make us care about the characters and remember the plot because of those characters.

In your writing, do your best to bring your characters alive. Make your readers invest in them. Good or evil, your characters will make you story memorable.

Finding the Essence Is Crucial

“Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Mark Twain

As each year passes, I find that I require fewer words to write. I still love long, languorous sentences if they serve a purpose, but I find more often that pithiness is key, and powerful. Often, I review what I’ve written and immediately see what to omit. First, I get my thoughts out, and then I edit.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Mark Twain

It takes time to write well. It takes time and effort to edit well. But the result is worth it.

How much better to write of the “spare Lincolnesque man who limped through the grocery aisles surreptitiously filling his pockets with soups and raisins,” than to write, “He was a tall, thin man, with chin whiskers and a top hat, who dragged his leg as he haunted the aisles stuffing the coats of his pockets with canned veggies and soup and bags of food such as nuts and raisins.”

“A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.” Mark Twain

I am currently forcing myself to finish a book where the author desperately needed an editor to clean up his prose. If the reader knows the facts of a situation, and one character goes to share those facts with another character, the author can imply that the facts were conveyed, not make the reader sit through yet another iteration of said facts. Cut that part and get to the consequence of sharing that information.

Assume intelligence on the part of your readers: they can remember facts, they catch implications, and they are likely ahead of the characters when it comes to tying things together.

Tighten your prose. Still paint with the glory of the entire English vocabulary, but write succinctly. Allow each word to carry its own weight.

Describe, Rather Than Show: We all do it

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A couple of months ago, as she was editing the first draft of her latest novel, author Louise Penny wrote:

In the meantime, am writing away. had to severely re-write a chapter when I realized it was all done in retrospect – described – rather than seeing it unfold. Am being vague, I know. Don’t want to give too many details. But it sometimes happens, when I have, let’s say Gamache and Beauvoir analyzing something that happened, instead of showing it happening to them. Show don’t tell. Well I made that mistake and today had to un-make it. D’oh.

See, even successful published authors must rethink their writing.

“Show, don’t tell.” We’ve all heard the phrase (commandment), but what does it mean?

It means to let the reader in on the action. Rather than having them read about an event in a newspaper account–“Plane Lands on One Wheel, Passengers Throw Bodies To Opposite Side to Balance Plane: A Wild West jet landed on one wheel today, safely, thanks to the quick thinking of the captain and the cooperation of the passengers”–let them be inside the plane with the passengers as the captain commands over the loudspeaker, “People, we have a situation here. Only one landing gear wheel has extended and locked. We must land, we can land, but we all have to work together to make this happen. I need everyone, and I mean everyone, to move to the left side of the plane. Men, women, and children … move. Find any empty seat, or sit on the seat of someone already in place, but get to the left side of the plane. Do it now. We have one minute til touchdown! Get over and sit and hold on, because it’s gonna get bumpy!”

Which of these renderings of the account gets your blood pumping faster, and your mind engaged in a whirlwind of thoughts? Was it the newspaper reporting of the account, or was it the in-the-moment account? I suspect it was the latter, even if you simply couldn’t accept that a captain would ask his passengers to do such a thing. You were engaged, and that means the writing was successful.

That is the difference between telling (reporting) and showing (putting the reader in the moment).

Review your writing. Do you engage your readers in the action? If not, perhaps you should try to rewrite, and Show, don’t Tell.

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Enriching Your Writing

Meg Gardiner has been blogging about how she makes her novels “cinematic” by writing to the five senses. I, too, have written about writing with the senses, a talent that draws your readers into the story, as the words on the page become more than mere words and entice visual imagery.

Today, write about adding new bits and pieces to your writing to give more information to your reader—by using nouns in an interesting way. Here’s an easy way to improve your writing by simply concentrating on the visuals of each sentence.

First, reread your piece, paying close attention to any opportunity for visuals in your sentences. Find the nouns that you could improve to give more information to your reader. For example, in this sentence, there are several words I could expand on for greater impact:

  • I put the food on the dish and carried it to the dining room.

How can I enrich this sentence? Here are some ideas:

  • I put the food = I piled the sliced beef precariously on the platter
  • and carried it to the dining room = and stepped gingerly into the dining room, carefully avoiding bumping into chairs or tipping the platter and spraying meat juice onto the guests

The sentence now reads: I piled the sliced beef precariously on to platter and stepped gingerly into the dining room, carefully avoiding bumping into chairs or tipping the platter and spraying meat juice onto the guests.

It’s as easy as that. If you envision what you are writing about, your reader will be able to envision, as well.

Here’s another example:

  • Jerzy looked at Gladys and left the room. Gladys simply stared.

How might I enrich these sentences? Here are some ideas:

  • Jerzy looked at Gladys = Jerzy pierced Gladys with a look of pure hatred
  • and left the room = and stomped across the carpet to the door, slamming it behind him.
  • Gladys simply stared = Gladys never blinked, unaware of any emotion wafting in his wake.

The greater imagery also provides more insight into emotions, without blatantly writing them out. Hatred, anger, and lack of empathy are implied by the stronger writing.

Review what you have written and see where you can strengthen imagery. It’s amazingly easy, and well worth any effort on your part to provide visual clues to your reader.

First-Page Critique #10: Gateway to the Divine

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Here is the last of 10 first-page critiques offered to readers of my blog and readers of author Meg Gardiner. We hope you have enjoyed the critiques, and perhaps learned something from them for your own writing. The first step in any successful novel is getting the words on the page. The next step is proper editing. If you have editing questions, please feel free to contact me.

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Chapter 1: Kore’s Departure

As the biting wind stung her face Inanna clutched her as if her life depended on it. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet cutting into the cold pulsing air. As she approached the bridge she paused – the creek water did not have its usual delicate trickling sound, but revealed gushing excitement. Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused once again and looked up at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight, she thought.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time,” she uttered in a voice that hardly sounded like her own. She was highly cognizant of the urgency of the situation and was desperately trying to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened slowly to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear – it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Please, step inside for a moment,” Callie invited. “We’ll stop for Margot along the way,” she added.

As the two women gathered a couple of bags that had been prepared ahead of time, Callie slipped on her fur lined boots and swung her wool cloak around her. On the way out the door she grabbed her umbrella.

“Just in case,” she said as she winked at Inanna.

They two women strained to walk upright against the savage winds. Leaves and twigs raked against them and the percolating storm cut loose with a vengeance.

“Damn,” Callie bemoaned, “umbrella’s no use tonight.” She tucked it deep inside one of the bags, bouncing haughtily against her side. As if they hadn’t already been moving at a quick pace, the two women moved even faster. The contents of the bags was a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.

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Meg’s comments:

I like the urgency, the mystery, and the foreboding atmosphere in this scene. The storm effectively magnifies and reinforces the turbulence in Inanna’s heart, complicating her unknown mission. That’s all positive. What this page needs is another draft.

And, Dear Author—before you howl and rend your garments: this is a good thing.

This page has multiple early-draft issues—imprecise language, awkward sentence constructions, clichés. But the concept for the scene, and its execution, are basically solid. With care and attention, you can straightforwardly fix every issue. (I’m not telling you to throw it out and start over. See? Good thing.)

So:

Sentence construction:

1) The first sentence—the reader’s entry point into the story—is confusing. It uses her three times. Either the second her is a pronoun where a name should be used, or a word is missing. (“Inanna clutched her…” Her what? Pearls? Broadsword?)

2) Watch for overusing as. “As the biting wind stung her face,” “As she approached the bridge,” “As the two women gathered…” As can let a sentence get overloaded with too much action. Cut the word and cut the sentence in two. Or change “ ‘Just in case,’ she said as she winked,” to “‘Just in case.’ She winked.”

Speech tags. Stick with “said.” (Everybody who’s attended a writers’ group meeting with me is now stabbing a finger at their screen, thinking, “I knew she’d harp on this.”) On this page, dialogue is rarely said. It’s uttered, invited, added, and bemoaned. You’re allowed a speech tag that isn’t the word said—once a chapter. That exception is the word asked.

Clichés: “All hell is going to break loose.” “With a vengeance.” “As if her life depended on it.”

Come up with fresh similes and metaphors.

Imprecise imagery: Can a chorus “crunch”? Does a bag bounce “haughtily”? Does wind feel like “pulsing” air? When you say Inanna’s voice “hardly sounded like her own,” could you instead be specific? How does it sound different? Timid? Quavering? Too loud?

 

One larger issue is the disparity in Inanna’s and Callie’s reactions—Inanna is near panic, Callie breezy. That’s actually interesting. But Inanna doesn’t react to Callie’s breeziness. It’s a disconnect. If Inanna could show irritation, or anger, or be calmed by Callie’s seeming coolness, that would strengthen the scene.

This page has a lot of potential. So dig in and get going on the next draft.

Thanks for submitting!

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Ann’s Comments

I like the sense of turmoil and need for speed that comes across in the early paragraphs. This is lost, however, with Callie’s lack of intensity. Is that on purpose? Is Inanna being unrealistic in her hurry? If you mean to have two reactions, then the two characters should play against one another in those reactions. If this isn’t meant to be, I would suggest that you hasten Callie’s responses. I hope that the sense of urgency is important, because that’s what drives this first page.

I won’t cover the clichés in the writing, since Meg has covered those. Just know that if a phrase immediately comes to mind (quick as a wink, in a New York minute, in two shakes of a cat’s tail), it is likely a cliché. When you edit, look for such phrases and reimagine the imagery (something that happens rapidly: like drool forming at the sight of chocolate cake; or a quickly as a fussing baby calms in its mother’s arms). Give yourself time to reimagine the world from your unique perspective, and share that imagining with your readers.

I also agree with her discussions of imprecise imagery and speech tags, all things that I would normally point out. I won’t repeat them here, but simply agree with them. Pronouns are especially problematic, as are sentence lead-ins (such as “as”).

All of that said, I also agree with Meg that you have a strong first draft here, one that deserves another edit, and then more of the story.

Reread Meg’s comments, and then study my suggested edits as follows. If you compare this edit to your original text, you’ll get an idea of how to tighten your writing:

With the wind biting her face, Inanna clutched her (missing word?), protecting it from the clutches of the wind. A chorus of leaves crunched beneath her feet. At the lip of the bridge, she paused—the creek didn’t trickle as usual, but gushed with laden energy. She scooted across the bridge on panic-light feet.

Soon Callie’s cottage was in sight. She paused again and looked at the sky. All hell is going to break loose tonight.

She rapped hard on the door. “Callie! Callie! It’s time. It’s time!” She fought to keep the panic in her heart from swallowing her whole.

The door opened deliberately, to prevent the wind from ripping it from its hinges. “Oh dear—it will take me a couple of minutes to get my things. Step inside for a moment. We’ll stop for Margot along the way.” (Question whether she doesn’t feel the need for speed as well?)

Callie slipped on her fur-lined boots and twirled her wool cloak about her shoulders, then handed Inanna one bulging bag and grabbed the other. At the last moment, she grabbed her umbrella. “Just in case.”

The two women strained against the savage wind as leaves and twigs raked against them, the percolating storm at last cutting loose.

“Damn! Umbrella’s no use tonight.” Callie tucked it deep into the bag bouncing against her side. The two women moved trod faster, the contents of the bags a constant reminder of what lay ahead this long night.

You have my interest. I vote that you continue! Thank you for submitting this.